Hunger is a complex concept that is part physiological (stomach grumbling and biochemical) and part psychological. One might think that we would feel the most hunger in the morning after sleeping an extended time without food. Interestingly, biochemical evidence may actually support more hunger at night before going to bed. Sound familiar? Further, preference for energy dense foods (sweet and salty foods, meats, and fruits) during peak hunger can occur, meaning that the body may prioritize higher calorie foods when hungry.
When is hunger a problem?
- If you experience hunger nightly before bed, there may be a pattern. It could be that you need to eat more nutrient dense during the day, especially before 4 pm (or it could be that you are watching commercials with food). To sort it out, go do laundry, take a short walk, wash your face and reevaluate if you are really hungry.
- Waking up in the middle of the night because you are hungry more than likely means that you are not eating enough during the day. Disruption in sleep is not desirable, so eat enough during the early part of the day to prevent this.
- When you become hangry! Making food choices when hangry is tricky, so prevent this from happening. Let no more than 4 hours go between meals/snacks if you are repeated getting too hungry.
When is hunger a good thing?
- When it is reminding you to eat. There is some research that suggests hunger hormones continue when all that is eaten is empty calories (e.g. high sugar foods, sweets, alcohol). So what that hunger pang, after two donuts, is telling you is to eat fresh whole nutrient dense foods because your body has not received the nutrients it needs.
- When it is reminding you to eat. Some people need this reminder to stop what they are doing and refuel.
- If you would rate your hunger 3 or 4 on a 5 point scale (with 5 = hangry) before meals. This is normal and desirable.
- When you are trying to reconnect with your body’s signs and signals. Despite the negative connotation in our society, if you have enough nutrient dense food available to you, then hunger before meals is a good feeling.
Balancing between eating enough and being hungry requires a bit of reflection and this is where a food log, including your degree of hunger, can really help to check for patterns. If you are in need of some assistance, don’t hesitate to reach out to me.
Happy and healthful eating,
Donna G. Pertel, MEd, RD, LDN